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A CurtainUp Review
As you enter the lobby of The McGinn/Cazale Theater you'll see a poster with photos and information about the fabled Pera Palas hotel, a.k.a. the "Pearl Palace" from the days Istanbul was known as "The pearl of the world." Sinan Ünel used the hostelry for his title and as the warp and woof upon which to construct his intricate and colorful drama about three groups of people whose inter-connected stories of lives that parallel Turkey's history from the last days of the Ottoman empire to the present. The admirable Lark Theatre Company has wisely opted to pour all its limited resources into a full-bodied cast and smart direction (by Stephen Williford) instead of attempting a poor man's Merchant Ivory production.
And so, for a glimpse of the true-to-life splendor of the stylish Istanbul "Pearl" log on to the still functional hotel's web site (www.istanbulhotels.com/peraeng2.htm). For an absorbing evening of theater that adeptly blends sprawling family and and historic drama with canny and thoroughly modern theatricality, make time to catch Pera Palas during its all too short run.
With the program listing two intermissions and twenty-six roles played by the ten actors during three time periods (1918, 1952 and 1994), you would not be amiss to expect three acts, each in its own time frame. As you'll quickly discover, however, the multiple role playing is not just a case of making do with fewer actors than called for in the script. The shift from role to role, (in several instances from male to female, female to male), is often a fiendishly clever statement about how the tide of time erodes seemingly impenetrable differences. In the same way the 1918-1952-1994 story threads are not only interwoven into the lives chronicled in each but intersect simultaneously. Mr. Ünel is very much a storyteller grounded in the tradition of theater as social commentary. Thus the characters he has crisscrossing through time also serve as symbols of the rebellions and choices that led to Turkey's emergence as a modern secular state and the link between the cause of feminists and homosexuals.
In the 1918 story we have Evelyn Crawley (Betsy Aidem), an English feminist writer visited by a teen aged harem girl (Defne Halman) she'd met on a previous trip with her father. She agrees to trade her Pera Palas room for a visit to the home of Melek's potentate father(Craig Mathers). Like Mrs. Leonowens and the King of Siam, Evelyn is charmed by a world of grace and beauty and repelled by the polygamy and the confining world of the Harem. In the story that moves us to 1952, a young American (Annie Meisels ) ignores her conventional older sister's (Jennifer Dorr White) advice and marries a young and progressive Turk (Tom Lee ). It is the son (Lou Liberatore ) and daughter (Betsy Aidem, again) of that marriage, who take us to 1992 . The daughter seems to personify the Harem girl who so willingly accepted her role evolved into an emancipated career woman. The son has reversed his mother's migration by leaving the country that has empowered women but not homosexuals. But the pull of his native land and his family, has prompted him to return to Istanbul (and the Pera Palas) with his lover (Evan Pappas).
That's the essence of this epic-sized and overlong (a twenty-minute trimming, would not be out of order). What lifts it above its polemical excesses, is the playwright's ability to make his variegated tapestry so clear that you never once wonder who's who and which story is taking center stage.
Of course it also takes talented and versatile actors to transform themselves into characters who often bear no resemblance to their former selves right before our eyes. This cast succeeds admirably, with the new-to-this-country Turkish actor Ali Poyrazoglu a standout as a guest to the harem, a bejewelled and mustachioed Turkish mother-in-law and most touchingly, as her alcoholic and embittered son (and father of the homosexual expatriate of the 1952 segment). Evan Pappas is equally fine as Murat's American lover and the sensitive son of the harem story's potentate who becomes a rebel for the cause of women like his mother and sister. The scatological jokes he's saddled with as the American would be a fine first step toward's the previously suggested script trimming.
Having Betsy Aidem portray the English woman who explodes the equilibrium of Ali Riza Efendi's crumbling fiefdom and the independent daughter and sister of the Bayraktar family is as slyly metaphoric as the cross-gender casting. Her two characters are educated women, yet the thoroughly modern Sema has not exactly embraced her brother's homosexuality. She has also allowed herself to be trapped in a "back street wife" situation reminiscent of the harem mentality her English character deplored. While Ms. Aidem is wonderful as Sema, her Evelyn Crawley somehow lacks the required blend of charm and feistiness. This same sort of sly casting has Craig Mathers play both the stubborn Ottoman traditionalist and an equally unprogressive British diplomat.
Finally, to return to the opening reference to Merchant-Ivory realistic splendor, Larry Gruber's minimalist set, (not even a Turkish carpet on the floor), actually shakes Pera Palas free from the tourist bureau realism that might well work against its structure. The panels at the rear of the stage gives just enough of the flavor of Turkish architecture and are most effectively lit by Howell Binkley.